During Tuesday’s Madison City Council meeting, Madison police officer Emily Samson walked across the chambers to deliver her testimony, attempting a symbolic bridging of the divide between the backers and critics of a petition supporting the police department.
“I wanted to just physically try to come closer,” Samson said, after leaving a group of MPD supporters to speak near Black Lives Matters supporters who opposed the petition.
The petition, which Mayor Paul Soglin ultimately referred to the mayor's office, calls for the City Council and the mayor to refute “baseless charges of racism” against the MPD, to halt a review of the department and invest in “combating crime and a growing gang problem.”
Samson is a patrol officer working out of the East District, but she said she moves throughout the city. While testifying, she wore a police union shirt, but said she is at a crossroads in her career. She also said she wants to make a difference in bringing the community together.
Many of those who spoke at the meeting called attention to the divisiveness between the MPD and the community, especially people of color. As a 15-year veteran of the MPD and a white woman, Samson said “it’s plain to see that there is a divide.”
Since the death of Tony Robinson, a black teen who was shot by a white police officer in March 2015, Samson said she has looked to change careers. In her testimony, she described a “pivotal” moment the day after the shooting when a man and a boy approached her outside of Robinson’s house.
“He said to him, ‘Don’t wear your hood in front of her, son, or she’ll shoot you.’” Samson said as she grew emotional. “The fact that I live in a community where a father has that fear and a child has that fear breaks my heart. I didn’t know if I could continue to wear the uniform anymore.”
In an interview Wednesday, Samson said most of her time is spent responding to incidents where someone is seeking assistance from an officer. She said working in the national context of police shootings and the local narrative of mistrust has added another level of difficulty to her job.
Policing is an “unpopular” job, Samson said, but she said most situations she and other officers deal with result in peaceful resolutions, though those moments do not gain as much attention as the negative outcomes.
“Sometimes I feel like we end up in contact with people who other systems have failed,” Samson said. “A lot of times we come into contact with people who other entities have given up on, so we end up dealing with maybe the saddest or the maddest or the sickest or the meanest or the baddest people that there are. Sometimes dealing with those people can get ugly.”
The petition, authored by Paula Fitzsimmons, addressed the conflict between the MPD and the community and asked city officials to stand with the officers.
“Instead of being grateful to Chief Koval and MPD for their service, the bulk of the common council, mayor, and other critics have found it necessary to publicly disparage this elite force,” the petition, authored by Paula Fitzsimmons, states. “Their actions are causing divisions within the city, adding to mistrust of the police, encouraging unacceptable behavior and thus endangering the safety of its citizens.”
At Tuesday's meeting, Samson handed out her business cards and offered to meet with anyone who was interested on their terms. She said the current tension between cops and community members can't continue.
“If anything is going to get in the way it’s going to be defensiveness,” Samson said. “I ask people try to put aside their defensiveness, and that’s so hard when you care so much.”
Her testimony can be seen in this video: